Sudbury column: Time to rethink public health message related to COVID-19 prevention

More emphasis should be placed on proper nutrition, exercise and a healthy lifestyle

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Sudbury has become a COVID-19 hotspot in the fourth wave of the pandemic with one of the highest infection rates per capita in Ontario. How we got to this current crisis is a question most of us have been asking ourselves since Sudbury Public Health and counties reintroduced capacity and other restrictions in early November, and now the new work-from-home rule is this week. Case numbers continue to rise and most of us have lost track of outbreaks in schools and businesses.

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The public health message has remained consistent: get vaccinated, get tested, social distance, wash hands, and wear a mask. Yes, these are critical steps that are required to protect the population and reduce transmission during a pandemic. However, an equally important preventive measure is to promote good nutrition, exercise, sleep and an overall healthy lifestyle. Such a campaign would include significant investments to ensure that services and resources are available and accessible across the country, particularly the communities most at risk.

When you look at the health of our residents, Sudbury does poorly in many areas compared to the rest of the county and country. Aside from the current opioid crisis, which continues to kill members of our community (not just the homeless), Sudbury has high rates of obesity, smoking and binge eating, as well as alarming rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, all contributing factors to a weakened immune system and increased risk and severity of COVID-19.

Experts agree that the key to preventing and managing many of these current health conditions is better nutrition. Poor nutrient status is associated with inflammation and oxidative stress, which affect the immune system. The optimal immune response depends on good nutrition to fight infection.

In particular, evidence indicates that a sufficiently high-quality protein intake is important for optimal antibody production. Eating omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to help fight inflammation while unsaturated fats such as fried and processed foods have the opposite effect, causing inflammation. Processed carbohydrates like white flour and refined sugar increase the production of free radicals, which can damage healthy cells while eating more plants, which are dietary fiber, and support a healthy gut, which helps reduce inflammation.

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Vitamins C and E and phytochemicals (found in plants) have a high anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacity. Available from the sun, food sources, and supplements, vitamin D primarily enables T cells to do their job – fighting off invading pathogens. Studies in the past 20 months have linked vitamin D and zinc deficiencies with susceptibility to and severity of COVID-19.

These are important components to consider when it comes to a health prevention strategy related to the current pandemic. However, the sad truth is that not everyone can have healthy food, which leaves them susceptible to disease.

In general, malnourished populations are more likely to get sick, suffer complications and even die. It’s no surprise, then, that the city’s fourth wave began with two residents – Homeless Camp and Sudbury Prison – where it’s safe to assume that many are malnourished and addicted. Addiction causes nutritional deficiencies and a weakened immune system, severely detrimental to overall health.

A study from Harvard Medical School and published in Gut in September 2021 found that a dietary pattern featuring healthy plant-based foods was associated with lower risk and severity of COVID-19. The findings were particularly relevant for people living with a higher level of socioeconomic deprivation. In addition, the researchers suggest that efforts to address the disparities in the risk and severity of COVID-19 should take into account particular attention to improving nutrition as a determinant of health.

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This does not mean that the majority of COVID-19 cases in Sudbury are based on groups of people with poor socioeconomic status. Or that diet alone is the answer. However, this is only one of many studies that highlight the relationship between nutritional status and COVID-19. It may be useful to further explore how malnutrition and public health can be a contributing factor to our current crisis. It is time to rethink the current public health message and COVID-19 prevention strategy.

The Ford government announced Monday that it is preparing an improved strategy to combat the new Omicron variant, with details to be revealed at the end of the week. Whether his focus will go beyond vaccination and further restrictions remains to be seen.

The cited sources and other resources are available upon request.

Laura Stradiotto is a registered health and nutrition consultant, mother of three and writer in Sudbury. She works as a nutrition coach and content developer for Med-I-Well Services, a multidisciplinary team of health professionals who collaborate with companies to develop a healthier and more productive workforce. Wednesday Wellness is a monthly column appearing on the Sudbury Star. To contact Laura, send an email to lstradiotto@mediwell.ca.

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